All hail 'The Nutcracker'!
The Sugarplum Fairy remains the most challenging role in "The Nutcracker" ballet. A ballerina must be secure in her classical technique and mature in her dramatic skills to excel in this role. She also must be a smart leader on stage as she endeavors to keep all those tiny sugar plum darlings from tripping over one another in the Land of the Sweets.

For young dancers, being chosen for Clara also elicits "oohs" and "ahs" of envy, for it is she who gets the spotlight as she wins the heart of her Nutcracker Prince.

Nonetheless, much of the buzz this "Nutcracker" season surrounds the casting of the grown-ups for the big holiday party scene. Yes, these nondancers are expected to partake in the scene's festive social dancing, a mazurka, followed by a quadrille in front of the Christmas tree at the Stalhbaum's mansion.

Spoiler alert: Grandmother gets drunk, and Clara's brother breaks her beloved nutcracker doll — and that's just a portion of what's in store during this lively party sequence.

While local troupes depend on moms and dads to play these parts, the Washington Ballet invites politicos and "celeb-vocates" (a word coined by reporters to describe celebrities who show up in D.C. espousing particular causes). In the past, we have seen senators, judges and even basketball stars appear in the company's popular holiday stagings.

You never know who might show up on stage at the Warner Theatre, where the Washington Ballet is presenting "The Nutcracker" now through Christmas Eve. (Some of the local dance blogs might be able to tip you to some of the last-minute casting coups.)

This season is special as the company is marking the 50th anniversary of presenting "The Nutcracker" in our nation's capitol.

Artistic director Septime Webre is paying homage to founder Mary Day by re-staging her 1961 original vision, blended with details of his own Americana version, set in 1882 Georgetown. It's always a treat to watch company dancers take on the roles of George Washington as the Nutcracker King, King George III as the Rat King, Indians and frontiersmen. The gorgeous music is being provided by a live orchestra, funded by a donation from philanthropic dance supporter Adrienne Arsht, who may just pop up in the production one night.

Some 28 performances remain, including evenings and matinees. Orchestra tickets range from $30 to $90, with discounts for military and students. Special events include a Tea Party at the Willard Hotel following the matinee performance on Sunday, Dec. 11. For more information, call 202-362-3606 or go to

Patricia Berrend, who has become the keeper of the flame with regards to Mary Day's early works, is also honoring her mentor by presenting the Olney Ballet Theatre in a pristine, right-on-the-money "Nutcracker."

Forget the Mother Ginger character with her oversized skirt and silly munchkins. This version returns to Day's 1961 creations, including a fanciful chef; his large spoon, which gets him into much trouble; and a cute toddler helper. The Olney company dances this version 14 times at the Olney Theatre Center, Dec. 9-24. For more information, call 301-924-3400 or go to

The American Ballet Theatre is itself an American treasure that tackles "The Nutcracker" with dash and daring. This version of the classic ballet fantasy will be danced at the Kennedy Center's Opera House Dec. 8-11. Purchase a full-price seat to ABT's "The Nutcracker" and save $10 on select orchestra seats to see more thrilling ballet performances during the winter season.

Call toll-free 800-444-1324 for up-to-date details on the center's free holiday offerings. You can find the extensive listings at

The student spin

For the Howard County Ballet staging of "The Nutcracker," look for professional dancer Heather Malone to share the "plum" lead role of the Sugarplum with Emilee Hooper, who came up through the ranks of the company under the tutelage of director Kathi Ferguson. Both girls will be led in the grand pas de deux by visiting artist Cedric Bonner.

Twelve-year-old Danica Steckler, one of three darling Claras in this full-length staging, seemed to be attracting all the attention in a recent ballet class. With her bright smile, the petite Patapsco Middle School student gleefully observed about the role, "You get to be on stage the whole time!" Anna Donnelly, 12; and Morgan Geraghty, 13, round out the roll call of talented Claras for this production.

Setting the Howard County Ballet staging apart from most local "Nutcracker" offerings is the participation of live symphonic music. The Howard County Ballet Orchestra accompanies the on-stage dancers at Centennial High School, Dec. 16-18. Tickets are $19.50, general; $12 for senior citizens, students and children. The latter will especially get a kick out of the rowdy boy-soldiers and little-girl mice as that magical indoor tree just grows and grows. For information, call 410-465-9414 or go to

Marcia Lachman started producing her annual staging of "The Nutcracker" nearly a quarter century ago. Columbia's first dance teacher continues this tradition with the unique adaptation performed by the Arabesque Dance Company in the Jim Rouse Theatre, Dec. 17-18. Arabesque's show is highly recommended for viewers of kindergarten age. Young eyes grow very big taking in the on-stage magic of the music and costumes.

As in the past three years, the Central Maryland Youth Ballet is putting on its "Nutcracker" at the Slayton House Theatre in the Village of Wilde Lake, Dec. 9-11. This one is full of special touches by co-directors Kimmary and Jacob Rice. Plus there's the added bonus of discovering new talent, teenage ballerinas who began as tiny mice and will blossom into soloists during the candy dance variations. Call 443-472-772 for ticket availability.